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Professor integrates community service into coursework; students take aim at homelessness
homeless service pic
CSU Stanislaus Professor Brett Ashmun is using the course work in his English class to broaden the students understanding of homelessness and offer them opportunities to volunteer, like at the upcoming dinner for We Care at La Mo on Saturday. - photo by FRANKIE TOVAR/The Journal

Homelessness is often an out of sight, out of mind issue for many, but for a group of 20 students at California State University, Stanislaus it's an issue that has been brought into the light by, of all things, a first-year composition English class.


With a unique combination of civic outreach and coursework geared towards writing, Professor Brett Ashmun has been able to expose his students to not only the issue of homelessness in the Valley but also of the importance of community outreach, joining with local organizations to both serve the homeless and raise money for their cause.


“We have our own community within the classroom and we kind of expanded on that from the first semester into helping the community outside of the classroom,” Freshman Nickolas Thomas of Modesto said. “I was just a college student, just going to class. But so far this semester I've enjoyed it, helping other people.”


Spurred by the virtues of his grandfather, a social worker, and molded by his experience as an Americorp volunteer during Hurricane Katrina, Professor Ashmun opted to create a community themed stretch course rather than a traditional writing course with the hopes that he could both educate and inspire the students that walked through his door.


Starting with other projects including senior citizen and youth outreach, Ashmun has directed the focus of Spring semester towards the homeless, specifically reaching out to the We Care Program in Turlock.


 “The underlying message for the whole semester is being literate in a democracy. And that means not just knowing how to read and write, but understanding how to be a citizen in our country. Shifting that away from worrying about yourself and how much money you can make to your community and how you can better the community you're in,” Ashmun said. “What I'm doing right now is showing them a plan of action where homelessness is an issue in the Valley, in Modesto and Turlock.”


After meeting with the Interim Executive Director of We Care, Ashmun and his 20 students volunteered at the shelter twice in one week, serving food to those staying at the shelter while also learning about their individual stories.


 “It was cool seeing everyone and seeing that everyone has their own little story,” Thomas said of his volunteer experience.


“It surprised me that it's not against the law to be homeless but you can't be homeless in public,” he added about what he learned. “It's like hiding it from the public eye instead of fixing it.”


To help bring awareness to the homeless issue instead of pushing it from sight, Ashmun's class and We Care decided to take things further than simple volunteerism and partner with La Mo Cafe and Do Good Distillery to throw a Collaborative Fundraiser Dinner for We Care Turlock on Saturday.


 “We Care has done little fundraisers to raise a few dollars, but this is the first major fundraiser they've ever had,” Ashmun said.


La Mo Cafe — known for its homeless-friendly community coffee policy that lets customers pay what they want or can for the house coffee — was a natural selection for the dinner.


“Some people don't see the homeless as people, so I guess we're trying to advocate for them. Because their stories and the reasons they're on the streets are a lot more complicated than people would imagine,” co-owner Hillary Smith said. “We want to treat them with kindness and respect.”


The fundraiser will be held from 5:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. Tickets will be sold on a first come, first served basis. Plates cost $60 — the price of a three night stay at the We Care shelter — and includes four courses and a cocktail. Proceeds will go towards operation costs for the shelter and Ashmun's students will be in attendance as volunteers.


“It's a win-win in every direction,” Ashmun said.


“We have a big reach here, and each person involved has a big reach with people that know them and support them, and so hopefully those supporters will come,” Smith said.


Ashmun's students will continue their homelessness project beyond the dinner as they will write letters to the editor of the Turlock Journal to share what they've learned, create a plan of action for the classroom, and compile a research-based information directory for the We Care Shelter and its residents to use during future city council hearings.


“When I stepped into the classroom I realized that these young adults are wonderful people and they're trying their hardest to figure out what the best way to help is and they just need mentors and role models to show them these are the things that are available to you,” Ashmun said. “This is one way of being an activist, telling people what you've learned.”